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Shake Your Pacemaker:
Big Bands Tackle Now Sounds
This article first appeared in Issue #11 of Cool and Strange Music Magazine.
Depending on whose interpretation you trust, the big band era died with the Petrillo recording ban, the introduction of television, or "Rock Around the Clock." By any account, though, by 1960, to still be leading a big band, you had to be a die-hard (like Woody Herman), a CEO in disguise (like Ray Anthony or Guy Lombardo), or the sidekick on some TV show (like Skitch Henderson and Mort Lindsay). The crowds that used to throng to ballrooms and track even obscure sidemen as if they were ballplayers were now settled into split-levels in the 'burbs and too damned tired after work to head back into town for entertainment they could just as well get on TV.
Most bandleaders and their musicians traded in their tour buses and fast-food diets for the security of studio gigs. Clear the room of ex-big band musicians, and the average Esquivel session would have to be called "The Sound of Silence." Henry Mancini, Billy May, Ray Conniff, and many of the mainstays of the studio system cut their teeth playing, arranging, and composing for bandleaders like Glenn Miller, Charlie Barnet, and Harry James. Barnet, Artie Shaw, and other leaders folded their bands and retired completely, trading a golf club for the baton. Enoch Light put on the grey flannel suit and became impresario of a series of labels: Grand Award, Command, and, finally, Project 3. Raymond Scott signed on with "Your Hit Parade" and stayed with the show through its move to television. Vincent Lopez, Lester Lanin, Guy Lombardo, and others invented a new job--band contractor--and ran little enterprises supplying dance music to weddings, parties, and coming-out balls.
A few refused to give up the faith, though, continuing to line up gigs and support a 16-man payroll when their competition had become groups of 4 pimply-faced teenagers flailing away on guitars. Or some slick guy with a tux, an organ, and a smooth line of patter. And what's even more remarkable, they still managed to find labels interested enough to put their vinyl up against the Beatles.
Just what audience did Epic have in mind when they hired Buddy "Night Train" Morrow to put out "Big Band Beatlemania"? Did they think "da kids" would be dumb enough to buy it? They were probably thinking that somebody's dad would buy it, either as a diplomatic gesture ("See, I dig your music, too") or as an educational tool ("What is it this kids see in this stuff?"). Usually, it was just a case of business--marginal business, maybe, but business nonetheless. Some buyers want that Polynesian-tiki bar stuff, some want those foreign groups playing those funny instruments, and some want to hear those old farts play new hits. Money talks, nobody walks.
When he hired multi-tracking guitar whiz kid Buddy Merrill to play "Rock Around the Clock" on his show, Lawrence Welk was making a simple business decision to go after yet another percentage of market share. Cameo/Parkway Records, home of Chubby Checker, made pretty much the same choice when they brought in society band leader Meyer Davis to cut "Meyer Davis Plays the Twist." Cross-market hits found their way into everyone's repertoire, whether they fit ("A Taste of Honey") or not ("Pipeline"). What's that song by that English guy--what's his name ... Manfred Mann? Hey, Count Basie, after this number, we want you to record this "Doo- Wah Diddy Diddy" thing. Da kids go nuts fer it.
As much as these situations reeked of artistic compromise and unnatural musical combinations, some surprisingly enjoyable sounds came out of them. You'd think that Sammy "Let's Swing and Sway" Kaye--hands down one of the sappier bands of the swing era--would be the last guy you'd want to go "au Go-Go" with. Hell, all you see on his "Shall We Dance?" is a bunch of guys in tuxes and ladies in evening dresses hanging out at the annual Banker's Ball. Snoozylvania. But a few cuts into Side One and you run into the theme from "Batman" thundering down on you like a night train on full throttle. Who saw that coming? Somebody replaced the syrup with nitro.
What happened? A check on the back reveals the secret: "Arrangements by Charles Albertine." Albertine was the guy who took a trio of guitar, accordion, and organ--the Three Suns--and launched them into outer space on such classic albums as "Movin' and Groovin'" and "Fever and Smoke." Albertine also took two of the dullest bandleaders in the business--Les and Larry Elgart--gave them a megavitamin injection, and took them on their own trip "au Go-Go," sending them "Jerkin' Around" and doing the "Thunder Shake." As was the case even at the height of the big band era, the arranger was often the key to a band's sound.
Les Brown and His Band of Renown transitioned pretty gracefully from touring and doing radio shows to settling in Hollywood and playing on Bob Hope's annual Christmas show. But when West Coast jazz vet Shorty Rogers signed on to arrange Brown's "The Young Beat" album on Columbia, the result was a funked-up, fuzzed-out take on "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" that sounded like Jiminy Cricket got mugged by Link Wray.
A few years later, Brown enlisted the help of Bob Florence, a brilliant arranger born a few years too late for big band's heyday, to help him tackle the "now sound" on a series of albums for Decca. Florence's subtle and beautiful touch allowed Brown to take on material like Miriam Makeba's Third World hit, "Pata-Pata." What emerged might not have qualified as "A Sign of the Times" or "The World of the Young," but it wasn't dead, either. There are a fair number of lame tracks where you can tell that no one involved could stir up much interest, but an equal number are lively, complex, and swinging. Florence contributed arrangements to a fair portion of the Liberty label's output in the 1960s, adapting Les Baxter's tunes for trombonist Si Zentner's band on the excellent album, "Exotica Suite," helping Martin Denny turn in his compulsory "a Go- Go" album (and possibly ghosting for Denny on piano), and doing the charts for most of Bud Shank's 60s albums. Perhaps as repayment, Florence was able to put out one album of his own, on Liberty's World Pacific label. Not that commercial considerations ever got that far away, however: it was a collection of Petula Clark/Tony Hatch tunes ("Pet Project").
Decca in the 60s seemed to specialize in putting fresh sounds in stale packages. Check out veteran womanizer and Latin band legend Xavier Cugat leering on the cover of "Feeling Good" -- evidently describing Cugie's state, despite being between wives Three (Abbe Lane) and Four (Charo). What could possibly attract the young audience to this album? And the only reason parents might buy the thing would as an instructional aid for their daughters ("Honey, please stay away from guys like this!"). Yet the old letch and his ace arranger, Dick Jacobs, produced an irresistable blend of bossa nova and Latin soul. Their take on "Music to Watch Girls By" sounds like it came off the streets of Bahia at carnival time. Thanks to Varese Vintage's recent CD compilation, "Cugie a Go-Go," these are some of the few cuts mentioned in this article available outside the vinyl underworld of thrifts, garage sales, and dealers. Get it and try out the patented Cugat technique for yourself: "What's new, poosey-cat?"
In between heart attacks and TV scoring gigs, Billy May took a stab at the now sound on "Billy May Today!"--cut for cut, perhaps the best album of the genre. He successfully updated a few old numbers like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and laid down what might be the only swinging version of the Tijuana Brass' "Spanish Flea." Never able to keep a straight face for long, May highlighted the pompousness of the Toys' "A Lover's Concerto" by mixing it with a Rachmaninoff piano concerto and even mocked his patron Frank Sinatra's smash single, "Strangers in the Night," by singing the last chorus of "doo-be-doos" like Porky Pig.
While leading the fourth or fifth incarnation of the Glenn Miller band, Buddy deFranco hired Latin jazz great Chico O'Farrill to adapt Tijuana Brass hits to the trademark Miller sound, an unnatural act he somehow carried off. Once again, it was usually up to the arranger to make or break these mergers. British bandleader Ted Heath provided a steady stream of product for the London label. If he was able to get Johnny Keating or Roland Shaw to handle the arrangements, the result was worth a spin. If not, to quote Burt Bacharach and Hal David, walk on by. Keating's arrangements garnered enough notice to get a few albums out under his own name, for both London and Warner Brothers. His sophisticated and densely interwoven charts rank with Bob Florence's as some of the best big band writing since the swing era.
Not that every big band vet rose to the occasion. Listen to Benny Goodman play the slinking melody line on Mancini's "The Pink Panther," and you can almost picture him grimacing as he suffers through the tune. Duke Ellington, who always gave the business side of running a band just enough attention to underwrite his creative work, paid the rent with his "Ellington '66" LP and went right back to working on his great late 60s suites. Harry James pulls off a sufficiently funky cover of Booker T. and the M.G.s' "Green Onion," but then follows that up with such contemporary numbers as "Down by the Old Mill Stream." Freddy Martin, another saccharine saxman, takes "Can't Buy Me Love," shaves that Beatles mop down to a respectable crew cut, then adds a dose of sleeping pills to wipe out the last bit of life in the tune. They probably used it to teach the box step. Billy Vaughn's approach to just about any material has the consistency of American cheese on Wonder Bread with loads of mayo. And what Guy Lombardo does to "Mrs. Robinson" shouldn't be discussed in decent company.
Even though Edmundo Ros was brave enough to take on "Hair," the introduction of acid rock drove most of his big band colleagues out of recording. By 1970, those still in business found their original fans were starting to retire and congregate in Florida and Arizona, providing a dependable if unspectacular following--and one that was just as happy to forget about that hippy music and stick to well-remembered favorites. No need to find somebody to write 4-man sax parts to "Stairway to Heaven."
To think what Charles Albertine would have done with it, though . . .
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